The tragedy of children poisoned by lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan is not an isolated incident. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 12 of the 27 states that carried out any lead testing in 2014 had higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint. More than 11 counties in New Jersey have children with higher lead levels. Since 2008, drastic cuts in funding for public health programs across the board have slashed programs to educate parents and pediatricians to test young kids for lead poisoning or test water for its residues.
An invisible toxic metal that permanently dulls the brain of children, lead can enter the body from water, paint, air, food, toys, supplements, or cosmetics. One of us reported in When Smoke Ran Like Water that in 1927, Harvard Professor Alice Hamilton warned the US Public Health Service that if lead were placed in gasoline, this would expose millions to an agent known at that time to damage the brain. In 1967, California Health department expert John Goldsmith eerily echoed this same warning saying that because Los Angeles air contained twice as much lead as surrounding areas, its children were endangered.
Innovative studies of discarded baby teeth by Herb Needleman and others sadly confirmed these early predictions: Lead in American children in the 1970s rose with the amount of gasoline consumed; their tested intelligence and ability to control impulses were correspondingly diminished. The removal of lead in gasoline—finally undertaken in the 1990s—remains one of the most impressive public health victories of the last century. Left unsaid is the nagging question: Did Needleman’s studies prompt long overdue public action because he had demonstrated brain damage in children who were not just black and poor, but white and middle class?
By 1985 EPA analysts calculated that the costs of remedial education alone for children with high lead levels from past use of leaded-gasoline ran into billions of dollars, while the benefits to better engine performance were exaggerated. The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revitalized state programs to ensure testing of children in the urban environment and other high-risk locales. Those programs are now, like much of public health programs, woefully underfunded and understaffed.
In fact, lead is an equal opportunity pollutant. Deprived communities in the US and around the world disproportionately suffer the impacts of environmental pollution. But middle class kids living in poorly executed housing renovations, ingesting contaminated vitamins or water or attending schools near busy highways are also affected. Once in the body, lead competes with the essential mineral of calcium and enters the brain and bone, where it remains. Levels measured in the blood indicate exposures that have taken place a few months earlier; they cannot tell us how much has already become entangled into young growing brains and bones.
The facts of Flint are straightforward. The Governor negated local elections, appointing conservators to revamp the budgets of several Michigan cities. In a shortsighted and ill-advised effort to cut costs, and with the possibly unlawful concurrence of EPA, the Flint conservator switched the city water supply from the Detroit River which had provided treated water for half a century. On 23 April 2014, the citizens of Flint began to get their drinking water from the Flint River, despite the fact that it had been declared unfit for human consumption by the State’s own Department of the Environment. In an effort to make Flint River water safe, a sixty-year-old treatment plant was rushed into service, an action that violated federal environmental regulations. As dark, foul-smelling water began to drizzle from Flint taps, objections poured in. At the large General Motors plant on the border of Flint, the water began corroding engine blocks. When the company grumbled that the new water supply damaged auto parts in their factory, they were provided with treated water from Detroit. Sadly, those living in Flint were not offered that option. They were told the water was safe to drink. It was not.
Some EPA employees spoke against the move. They were marginalized, ignored, and ridiculed. Within weeks a local parent and physician reported evidence of lead poisoning in children. They were also dismissed. Only after tests from Virginia Tech University confirmed that the highly corrosive water from the Flint River was leaching lead into tap water was the water supply switched back to Detroit.
As environmental health scientists with more than sixty years of combined experience, we look with horror on the unfolding disaster. The families of Flint will suffer for the rest of their lives from the short-sighted improper actions of the city custodians who ignored existing laws and compromised public health and safety. The fact that the poisoning of Flint took place under the guise of fiscal control provides a cautionary tale to us all. The cost of preventing more lead poisoning—by tapping the cleaner water supply from Detroit—pales compared to the projected costs of raising children who will live the rest of their lives with just a little less intelligence, a slightly greater propensity to criminal behavior, hearing difficulties, higher blood pressure, kidney disease, skin diseases, and other subtle afflictions.
More than six months after the city of Flint began drinking from this contaminated river, the poor quality of its intake water was noted in Consumer Confidence Report. “The Flint River source water intake is categorized as having a very high susceptibility to potential contaminant sources.”—City of Flint November 2014 Annual Water Quality Report. Translation: CAUTION: This water will require sophisticated, state-of-the-art treatment. The city brought a sixty-year-old plant out of mothballs to do the job.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is on the case, as they should be.
Lead pipes, lead solder, and brass fittings with high lead content are common in drinking water supplies throughout the United States, particularly those with older homes, but even houses built in the early 1980s can have lead solder. When water is salty or acidic, lead is released. The water from the Flint River is both. As a result, it is 12 times as corrosive as the water from Detroit.
But lead is far from the only problem created. Three months after they began consuming Flint River water, tests found sewage in tap water and residents were advised to boil it. The rates of legionnaire’s disease, a rare and sometimes fatal water-borne disease rose dramatically during this same time. A city the size of Flint, according to data from the CDC, would expect to see one case of legionnaire’s disease every year. Since June of 2015, Flint has seen 87 cases, including several deaths, and the pathogen responsible has been found in the water pipes of the city’s McLaren Regional Medical Center. The State hid data and blocked the CDC from evaluating the situation. Now that the water supply has been switched back to Detroit no more cases have been reported.
Normally, sewage contamination in drinking water is addressed through chlorination. As one of us has described in detail in The Blue Death, adding chlorine to water that already contains high levels of organic matter is a recipe for a disaster. The process of chlorination of such soiled water can form dangerous levels of toxic chlorination byproducts that are tied with cancer and possibly birth defects. In other words, decision-makers had grossly underestimated the challenge of making the Flint River safe for human consumption.
More than a billion people worldwide lack access to safe, clean water. Some of those people live in the United States. The back-room deal whereby the State Department of Environmental Quality allowed the town of Flint to use contaminated water has saved no money. Instead, this ill-advised and probably illegal budget cut will result in tens of millions of dollars being expended to compensate those whose futures are diminished. The disaster in Flint should stand as a stark reminder of the consequences of putting economics ahead of public health.
More broadly across the nation there are a number of communities—in New Jersey, Alabama, Texas—where tested levels of lead in children are twice as high as those in Flint. For lead poisoning, as with climate change or pesticide poisonings, the best tactic is to create a system that prevents harm from happening, rather than depend on one that finds and repairs damage after it has taken place. No budget cut is worth the toxic legacy of robbing innocent children and their parents of their full potential.
Image credit: Flint River in Flint Michigan by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.